Boasting volcanic lakes, sweeping rainforest, and prodigious waterfalls, backpacking Sumatra feels like one big adventure. And if you are looking to explore off the beaten path in Indonesia, we can not recommend it highly enough. In this Sumatra itinerary and travel guide, we will take you through all the highlights on this wildly diverse island. In addition, we will advise what to expect when travelling this undeveloped island in Indonesia.
It’s hard to believe that there are a whopping 14,000 islands occupying the Indonesian archipelago. Yet, out of the 14 million foreign tourists visiting Indonesia each year, over half only visit Bali! Don’t get us wrong, we LOVE Bali as much as the next person. However, we knew there had to be more to be discovered.
… That’s when we heard about Sumatra.
One of the largest Indonesian islands, Sumatra is famous for a number of things. First of all, the island hosts an abundance of rare wildlife. For instance, the endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers. What’s more, the rugged landscapes are incredibly diverse. These include smouldering volcanoes, verdant national parks, and pristine islands.
In other words, backpacking in Sumatra screams adventure. And with a thirst for raw experiences, we set off into the unknown. With this in mind, I bring to you, the Ultimate Backpacking Sumatra Itinerary & Guide.
Backpacking Sumatra – Itinerary & Guide
Backpacking Sumatra Highlights
Here is a quick overview of the Sumatra highlights, in case you don’t have time to read through the whole itinerary.
- Encounter wild orangutans and other wildlife in Bukit Lawang
- Swim in the supervolcanic Lake Toba
- Climb Gunung Sibayak – A dormant volcano in Berastagi
- Visit Sipiso-Piso Waterfall – One of the tallest volcanoes in Asia
- Discover remote paradise on Belitung Island
- Try some of the best Indonesian food in Medan
- Go snorkelling on Weh Island
- Catch some epic surf on the Mentawai Islands
Sumatra Itinerary at a Glance
- Day 1: Medan
- Day 2: Overnight Orangutan Trek in Bukit Lawang
- Day 3: Return from Orangutan Trek and go river rafting
- Day 4: Explore Bukit Lawang
- Day 5: Travel to Lake Toba
- Day 6: Explore Samosir Island
- Day 7: Visit Sipiso-Piso Waterfall
- Day 8: Climb Volcano Sibayak
- Day 9: Travel to Bukittinggi
- Day 10: Chase waterfalls and other nature spots in Bukittinggi
- Day 11: Travel to the Mentawai Islands
- Day 12: Snorkel and Relax
- Day 13: Check out the Surfing Beaches
- Day 14: Return home
Backpacking North Sumatra Itinerary
North Sumatra is up and coming. Many tourists visiting Indonesia are now considering North Sumatra as part of their itinerary. Don’t get me wrong, this is no Bali. Backpacking North Sumatra is still a raw and authentic experience. At the same time, there’s a fair bit of tourist infrastructure in place; so it’s a fair bit more of a comfortable experience than the rest of the island. Here is our suggested North Sumatra itinerary:
Day 1: Medan
Your Sumatra Itinerary will inevitably begin in the Northern city of Medan. While we only had limited time in Sumatra and didn’t spend much time here; it is said that there are some incredible things to do in Medan, including stunning cultural sites. Furthermore, it is famous for having some of the best food in all of Indonesia. That’s a good of a reason as any for a quick stopover, don’t you think?
Days 2-4: Bukit Lawang
After flying into Medan airport, our adventures officially began in the riverside village of Bukit Lawang. Gateway to the world heritage Gunung Leuser National Park, most visitors come here for one thing only… A chance of spotting orangutans in the wild.
Furthermore, the National Park is one of the richest tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia. As well as critically endangered orangutans, the region is habitat to an abundance of unique wildlife and plant species.
While the National Park is the highlight of Bukit Lawang, we also enjoyed the sleepy atmosphere of the village. Traditional and charming, it was a great introduction to Sumatran culture.
What to do in Bukit Lawang
1. Bukit Lawang Orangutan Trek
It’s hard to believe that there are only 2 places in the world where you can find wild orangutans. First, is Borneo in Malaysia, and the other is here in Sumatra. Sadly, deforestation is having catastrophic consequences on the species. As a result, it is unclear how much longer they will survive in the wild.
On a positive note, there are some efforts being made to conserve the environment. That said, there are some questionable practices when it comes to orangutan spotting tours. This is why it is imperative that you do your research before booking a tour, to ensure the company encourages responsible tourism.
While there are a number of tour companies who claim to be eco-friendly, we can personally recommend Sumatra Orangutan Treks. As well as being educated and respectful regarding the environment, they in no way enticed the orangutans by feeding them. This is a common method among some guides but can be very destructive to the orangutans’ well-being.
*Female Travellers – There are some reports online of some tour guides acting inappropriately towards solo female travellers. This is another reason to do your research and go with a reputable company. if you are a female travelling alone, make it absolutely clear that you want to go on a group tour when making your booking.
Related Post: Sumatra Orangutan Treks in Bukit Lawang
2. River Rafting/Tubing
Other than the National Park, there is little else to do in Bukit Lawang. Therefore, rafting or tubing on the Bohorok River is a fun way to kill some time. How hair raising the experience is, will depend on the time of the year. During the dry season, the rapids along the river are minimal. While in the wet season they are known to get pretty intense. We were there in dry season and so it felt like a lazy river cruise.
*Tip – If you do an overnight jungle trek, most of the tour agencies will include this activity as part of the package.
3. Explore the Village
If you have the time, it is worth spending some time meandering the village itself. As well as its beautiful and peaceful nature, it’s not uncommon to encounter furry residents of the national park roaming around.
In addition to some cool caves and riverside restaurants, the local culture is quite fascinating. You can expect residents of the village to get super excited when they see a Bule (tourist). And you’ll be like a local celebrity with everybody wanting a picture with you.
*Tip – Be sure to check out the bat cave – Although, wear sensible shoes and take 20,000 RP for entrance & torch rental.
Another Tip – on route to the cave, you will walk past a children’s home. This is a private organisation founded in 2008 to help support local children. If you enjoy some food or a drink in their restaurant, the profits will go towards educational material for the children.
Getting to Bukit Lawang
The closest airport is Kualanamu Airport in Medan and from there you will need to travel the 136km to Bukit Lawang. Here are the transport options available:
PRIVATE CAR – Although this is the most expensive option at around 50 euro, you can have your hotel in Bukit Lawang organise a private car for you. The total journey time is 3 hours.
GRAB TAXI – Grab Taxi operates in the area and if you are able to find a driver the price to Bukit Lawang is around 30 euro. The total journey time is 3 hours.
LOCAL BUS – The local bus is your cheapest option to travel to Bukit Lawang. Below you can find the bus time table and prices or check tourist buses with 12go, Asia.
Where to Stay in Bukit Lawang
Batu Mandi Guesthouse – Although the rooms were very basic, the garden surroundings are beautiful and peaceful. Furthermore, if you are doing a jungle trek they will store your luggage for you. A great base for a night or 2.
For other places to stay in Bukit Lawang, check out the latest prices.
Days 5-6: Lake Toba & Samosir Island
Formed by a supervolcanic eruption 70,000 years ago, Lake Toba is an extraordinary natural wonder of the world. At over 1,145 square km, and a depth of 450 meters, trying to fathom an eruption of this scale completely blows my mind.
That said, there is an imperturbable tranquillity to be found in this part of Sumatra. And located in the heart of the lake, Samosir Island is a wonderful place to spend a relaxing few days amidst your Sumatra Itinerary. In addition to the pristine scenery and serenity, we really enjoyed learning about the mysterious traditions of the local Batak Culture.
What to do on Samosir Island, Lake Toba
1. Visit an Authentic Batak Village
Visit the local villages of Tomok or Ambarita to learn more of Lake Toba’s extraordinary indigenous culture. Specifically, the Batak culture has a compelling history, involving stories of public beheadings and cannibalism. Furthermore, traditional Batak houses are truly unique and beautiful.
2. Take a Swim in the Lake
You can’t come to Lake Toba without taking a swim in the warm volcanic lake. That said, be sure to check with locals where it is safe before diving in. You will find a couple of establishments in the Tuk Tuk area have safe places to swim, including the German Bakery (who also serve some pretty nice cakes too)!
3. Rent a Scooter & Explore the Island
With captivating views aplenty, renting a scooter and driving the coastal road is a great way to spend the day. From Majestic waterfalls, lakes within lakes, and charming villages, there are so many wonders to be discovered here.
Related Read. 10 Things to do on Lake Toba
Getting to Lake Toba & Samosir Island
From Bukit Lawang: A small minivan of max. 7 people, leaves daily from Bukit Lawang at 8.30am to Parapat. Once you reach Parapat, you can take the ferry to Samosir Island. It is possible to organise the entire journey through a local tour company in Bukit Lawang. As a guideline, we paid 230,000 IDR/pax, including the cost of the ferry. The total journey time was approx. 10 hours.
From Medan Airport: Your best option from Medan Airport is to take a shared taxi to Parapat, followed by the ferry. Once you exit the airport, turn right and look out for a company called ‘Nice-Trans’. Here they offer a direct service to Parapat for around 100,000 IDR /pax. The journey time is approximately 5 hours.
Where to Stay on Samosir Island
Toba Village Inn – Located in the heart of Tuk Tuk, this beautiful property boasts an outdoor pool and incredible views over the lake.
For more places to stay in Samosir Island, you can check the latest prices here.
*Tip– We recommend staying in the Tuk Tuk area, as this is where you can find the majority of restaurants and attractions.
Days 7-8: Berastagi
Berastagi is a small rural town, and one certainly not quite catered for tourists yet. Nonetheless, the surrounding area boasts some exciting adventure prospects. Here, you can climb to the summit of a volcano or encounter one of the tallest waterfalls in Asia. That said, we wouldn’t recommend hanging around any longer than you need to.
What to do in Berastagi
1. Sipiso-Piso Waterfall
At a height of 120m, Sipiso Piso is one of the tallest waterfalls in Indonesia. In fact, it is said to be one of the most powerful in all of South East Asia. Combine that with astonishing surrounding views, you have yourself a worthy contender for your Sumatra Itinerary.
The waterfall is an impressive natural wonder to see up close. While it’s breathtaking from above, we recommend braving the 1000 stair climb to experience the sheer force of its wrath.
2. Climb Gunung Sibayak
At a height of 2,056 metres, Gunung Sibayak is said to be one of the most accessible volcanoes in Indonesia. A manageable 2-3 hour climb will lead you to the summit, where a smouldering sulphur lake lay dormant.
During the morning is the best time to climb, and many choose to start the hike early to be there for sunrise. For more information, ask at your hotel to organise a tour guide & transportation for you.
3. Eat at Jabu Cafe
Serving western and Asian food with a twist, this trendy establishment felt more like we were in Bali than Sumatra. The portions were a little on the side small, but where the food lacked in size, it made up in quality. Furthermore, they also have a great coffee menu including an Avocado based Coffee and a Creme Brule latte!
Getting to Berastagi
From Medan Airport: Your best option is to take a shared taxi. Once you exit the airport, turn right and look out for a company called ‘Nice-Trans’. Here they offer a direct service to Berastagi. The journey time is approximately 3hrs.
From Lake Toba: You can take the ferry to Parapat followed by the tourist bus to Berastagi. As a guideline, we paid 15,000 IDR/pax for the ferry plus 150,000 IDR/pax for the bus and you can book in advance at Parapat pier. Alternatively, there are tour operators dotted around the island.
From Bukit Lawang: A tourist bus will cost approximately 170,000 IDR/pax. Organise with your hotel or local tour companies. Duration: 5-6hrs.
Where to stay in Berastagi
OYO 559 3 Berastagi – This simple yet modern hotel is great value for money in the heart of Berastagi.
For more places to stay in Berastagi, you can check the latest prices here.
Backpacking West Sumatra Itinerary
West Sumatra is a little more challenging to travel than the North. Meaning other than an intrepid few, you’re unlikely to bump into many other tourists. This area of Sumatra is most commonly known for its world-class surf; however, you don’t need to be a pro surfer to enjoy what’s around. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the West on this trip; however, based on some research we have put together this West Sumatra Itinerary for your inspiration.
Days 9-11: Bukittinggi
Known for its stunning scenery and cultural traditions, Bukittinggi seems like a worthwhile addition to your Sumatra itinerary. In fact, there seems to be an endless list of things to do here. If you are a nature lover, you can hike volcanoes or chase waterfalls. At the same time, history buffs will enjoy the royal architecture and Japanese war tunnels.
Suggested Read: A guide to Bukittinggi
Days 12-14: The Mentawai Islands
The Mentawai Islands have been described as the Bali of yester-years, with the archipelago boasting some of the best beaches in Indonesia. In particular, those in the know, come here to take advantage of the world-class surf conditions. While the surf beaches in Bali get busier each year, surfers here can enjoy quiet and flawless conditions.
Despite being the top attraction, you don’t have to be a surfer to enjoy the Mentawai Islands. First, the pristine waters are perfect for diving or snorkelling. Furthermore, some islands boast sweeping rainforest where you can go trekking. In short, there is something for everybody here in Paradise.
Suggested Read: Mentawai Islands – A guide to surfing in paradise
Additions to Backpacking Sumatra Itinerary
If you find yourself with more time in Sumatra, here are some other spots worth considering.
While we have covered most places in the North, you may wish to consider the Aceh province as an addition to your backpacking Sumatra itinerary. Unfortunately, this area is most commonly known for a devastating Tsunami that took place in 2004; however, often overlooked is the beautiful nature and raw culture.
As well as museums and cultural sights, the surrounding islands boast pristine beaches with amazing marine life. Yet, the Aceh province remains rarely visited by tourists. Although we are guilty of not making it to Aceh ourselves on this occasion, it’s definitely on the list should we return?
Suggested Read: 15 Best Things to do in Aceh Province
If you’re all about the back to basics, remote island life, I would highly encourage you to consider Asu Island during your trip to Sumatra. Other than surfing and snorkelling, there’s not much else to do other than enjoy the pristine beaches. Sounds terrible right? This article by North Abroad sums up the island perfectly.
Sssssh – this is Indonesia’s best-kept secret. Well off the beaten track off the coast of North Sumatra, Nias Island is a location for the adventurous travellers. Expect 120km of unspoilt beaches, a unique and vibrant culture, as well as epic surfing opportunities.
The Best Time to go Backpacking in Sumatra
The best time to visit Sumatra is in the dry season (May to September). This way, you can enjoy all the outdoor activities the island has to offer. The wet season starts in September and progresses through to around February time. It’s recommended to avoid travelling during that time.
Sumatra Culture & Religion
With the primary religion in Sumatra being Muslim, the culture is very different to that you will find in Bali. That said, it is just as rich and vibrant.
In fact, the people of Sumatra are a diverse group of races and cultural groups. For example in the North, you have areas who implement Sharia Laws. While on Lake Toba, the Batak culture has its own belief centre altogether.
With this in mind, it’s important to be respectful of the local culture and traditions. Most importantly, it is common courtesy to dress conservatively, even on some beaches. Be sure to read, certain customs to be aware of that can avoid unintentional offence or disrespect.
Things to Know Before Backpacking Sumatra
- Pay close attention to the Sumatra culture and religion section above.
- WIFI is extremely difficult to find in the more rural areas of Sumatra. We made the rookie error of arriving without a SIM card and having no internet made planning our travels very difficult.
- It is near enough impossible to buy a tourist sim card in Sumatra unless you can find a local who will register it for you. The shops here do not offer the same services as in Bali or Lombok. The best option is to buy a sim card in Bali and check that it will cover you in Flores as well.
- In some areas, it is difficult to find anybody who speaks English. It is good to learn some local phrases but also have a translation app downloaded on your phone.
- Beware of the minority of locals who will give you incorrect information regarding bus timetables etc. They are usually looking to make money off of you themselves. Be clear on your route before setting off and always have an offline map handy.
What to Pack for Backpacking Sumatra
Unsure of what you might need to pack for your adventures in Sumatra? Don’t worry, we have got you covered. Check out our backpacker essentials, for a packing list of items that we carry with us on every adventure.
Here are some items that we recommend taking to make your visit to the jungles & waterfalls more comfortable:
- Comfortable shoes for the hikes
- Water shoes to wear in the water – We Recommend: 2 in 1 Water/Hiking Shoes.
- Waterproof Bag to protect valuables – We Recommend: Waterproof Dry Bag-10L/20L/30L
- Bathing suit & towel for the obvious – We Recommend: Microfiber Travel Towel
As travellers, it should always be a top priority to travel responsibly. We already leave a substantial carbon footprint just by flying to our travel destinations, so that’s even more reason to make a positive impact when we get there. There are many small steps you can take to becoming a responsible traveller, and we highly encourage you to educate yourself before travelling to Sumatra. Here are some things you can do to minimise your footprint:
1. Do not leave any rubbish on the ground: You would think this would go without saying; however, there are some questionable humans who think it’s ok to throw trash on the ground.
2. Carry a Steripen or iodine tablets to sterilise water: This not only limits your usage of single-use plastic but also saves you money too!
3. Respect the local culture: Be courteous of the local culture and act in such a way that leaves a good impression. Learn a little of the local language (hello and thank you is the minimum), greet the locals in a polite manner, and respect dress codes & traditions.
Well, that concludes Our Backpacking Sumatra Itinerary and Travel Guide. If you have any questions or feel we have missed anything, please reach out to us in the comment section below.
Stay adventurous and happy travels,
Charlotte and Natalie x
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